Troublesome waters, much blacker than night,
Are hiding from view the harbor's bright light.
—"Troubled Waters," Iris DeMent
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to explain the appeal of Reddit to him. (Reddit, if you're not familiar, is a place to get news, links, discussion, and opinions from other people on the internet. Folks can submit links or topics for discussion, and other folks can vote those topics up or down and respond to them in comments sections on each one.) From the outside, it can look a lot like everything that's bad about the internet.
In the first place, everyone on Reddit is anonymous unless they choose to be otherwise; internet anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people, and Reddit is no exception: there's plenty of bile, casual misogyny, and even racism to be found in the comments section of popular items. And perhaps even worse, it is a breeding ground for vapidity in the way of many internet hubs, generating captioned cat pictures, all manner of silly nonsense videos, and the like. As I write, the front page of the website has, in order of popularity, (1) A picture of a toddler stealing candy, (2) a picture of a woman in an orange dress jumping really high, (3) a link to a somewhat interesting-sounding Wikipedia article, (4) a picture of something weird that claims to be from a Japanese vending machine, and (5) yes, a captioned picture of a cat.
My friend knew this, and he wanted to know if there is any reason to ignore all of these obvious flaws and go to Reddit anyway. My answer: emphatically yes.
Reddit is also a place to discover people having insightful debates on meaningful issues, and to engage with them yourself. It is a place to see things others have created, and get insightful feedback on creations of your own. You can find communities of people interested in practically every subject, many of them pulsing with commentary, content, and life. Reddit, if you know where to look and what to do, is an extremely valuable, and even beautiful, corner of the internet.
If I've piqued your interest, and you want to start using Reddit, I'm going to tell you how to do it. Before I do that, I need to briefly explain the mechanics of Reddit, and how it can be a hive of vapidity and a beacon of hope for insight on the internet at the same time.
Reddit is composed of communities of people, some large, some small, some active, some dead, but all created by people around a common interest or theme, be it politics, religion, images, knowledge, or anything, really. These communities are called subreddits.
Reddit, when you first go there, looks like this:
That's the frontpage. It's where everything that gets lots of attention (or "upvotes") from Redditors goes. It's also the most likely to be full of drivel, and it's where most ignorant commenters go to be ignorant.
The front page is a compilation of the most popular material from the most popular subreddits. In order to get away from the bad stuff and start finding the good stuff, you need to get away from the front page and find less crowded, more interesting subreddits. That's the key to having a good time on Reddit.
Here's a step-by-step guide to how to have an excellent Reddit experience:
- Go to www.reddit.com. Create a username and password for yourself.
- Unsubscribe from the default subreddits.
- These are listed along the top of the page: pics, funny, politics, and so forth.
- (You can keep some of them if you like: r/IAmA is interesting, as people with interesting personal history and celebrities come there to be interviewed by the Reddit community; r/askscience is also pretty cool, in my opinion, as is r/TIL (Today I Learned). In my opinion, though, there are better places to explore in most of the content areas covered by those subreddits.)
- To unsubscribe, click on the name of the subreddit, and hit the red "unsubscribe" button on the right once you're in the subreddit.
- Find some subreddits you're interested in and subscribe.
- There are several ways to do this. One way is to click on the default subreddits with subjects you're interested in (r/worldnews, e.g.) and look along the right-hand side for related subreddits. Subreddits will have a number of subscribers listed next to the "subcribe" button; if the number is over million, you should probably go elsewhere. Same if the number is under 100: those subreddits aren't full enough to have meaningful levels of activity.
- Another way is to look over the list of the 250 most popular subreddits, which you can find here (on the left hand side of the page) along with some other interesting Reddit data, and start clicking on ones that interest you. (Don't click on red links in that list if you know what's good for you. Also, note that, strangely, subjects with an ordinary word [e.g, "history" or "earth"] plus the word "porn" actually refers to interesting pictures of that subject to ogle, offensive though this naming scheme may be to some. Lastly, note that r/trees is about marijuana, not trees. I don't know why.)
- Finally, you can use the Reddit search bar to look for subjects that interest you and see what subreddits turn up.
- You're now set to Reddit! Any time you log in, your frontpage will display the most popular links from the subreddits you're subscribed to.
- If you want to use Reddit on a regular basis as a place to get information and engage with communities of people, you can make your experience more enjoyable and smoother by adding the Reddit Enhancement Suite to your browser; it works for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. It has a bunch of great things to make browsing, commenting, and general Reddit use easier, and when you install it, it will tell you all about them. I recommend it.
- Once you're subscribed to different subreddits, you'll notice that there are some specifically built to invite people to create and engage in discussions. So pick some and add your voice! Note that it's considered polite to upvote people's comments that you think add to the discussion, and to reserve downvotes for comments that are out of place or destructive, not for things you happen to disagree with.
- You can submit links yourself by clicking the "Sumbit a Link" button on the frontpage. Once you've done so, try to come up with an engaging title (if it's an article, pull a very brief but interesting snippet of text if you can) so that people will pay attention. Lots of great stuff gets passed over on Reddit because the submitters don't take a moment or two to try to hook people. Then, choose a subreddit to submit it to; the page should provide suggestions.
Here are the subreddits I'm currently subscribed to, if you're interested:
Here are some others I've discovered recently: